Friday, December 1, 2017

With distinction, Dance Kaleidoscope joins other performing arts organizations in mounting a seasonal program

The mystery and the fun of the season make up Dance Kaleidoscope's new program, which marks a return for the
contemporary-dance troupe to a Christmas show after many years. "A World of Christmas" opened Thursday evening on Indiana Repertory Theatre's Upperstage and plays there this weekend and next.

Irresistible: The exuberant company representation of a Hawaiian song.
It was gratifying to see a work revived from David Hochoy's early years in his fruitful tenure as DK's artistic director. His setting of Benjamin Britten's "Ceremony of Carols" was first staged 20 years ago. As he told the audience in a question-and-answer session during intermission, "there's a lot of Martha Graham in it." He was not far then from his employment as a dancer and rehearsal director with this seminal figure of his art form, and her enthralling gift for representing ritual has come down to Hochoy as part of the Graham legacy.

Britten's setting of old English carols for boys' choir and harp is a rare example of Christmas music I never get tired of. Oh, I suppose hearing it every day from Advent through Epiphany would become tedious. But it is one of those nearly perfect Britten compositions in which his prodigious technique and his inspiration are in perfect sync.

The words of the carols are properly somewhat distant from what we see in Hochoy's setting, but there is a fine congruence between them that allows the music to flower wholly in dance terms for this gifted company. Indeed, gifts are the keynote: a sculptural gift  created by Herron High School students is carried by each dancer in procession down the theater's aisles and set down in front of the square stage. At the end, the gifts are placed onstage by the troupe before it leaves (to Britten's recessional music). The items are bathed in light as if to indicate that the ritual of gift-giving has been made subject to a peculiar blessing.

Cheryl Sparks' costumes — white and flowing, formal yet timeless — seem just right for both the vigorous and the contemplative movements. Space is never an alien element in Graham-inspired choreography; it's always embraced, commanded and filled by every gesture. This imposes reverence upon the design, in that even movement that emphasizes struggle (though that's at a minimum in this piece) takes in the world through which it passes and makes it in some sense holy.

"Wolcum Yole!," the cheerful first piece after the procession, places the 10 dancers as greeters of the season as well as of each other, establishing a feeling of community thoroughly at home in the Christmas season. As the work unfolds, the audience is brought into a balanced presentation of both individual and collective celebration. Caitlin Negron has the spotlight in a solo to the carol partners of "That Yonge Child" and "Balulalow," with the climactic, spinetingling line "The knees of my hert sall [heart shall] I bow." Back-to-back showcases for the women ("As Dew in Aprille") and the men ("This Little Babe") are well-judged. Vivacious choreography never loses its duty in this piece to represent formal devotion.

Suggesting the glory that was Graham: A transfiguring moment in "Ceremony of Carols."
The interlude harp solo is the occasion for a fine duet by Timothy June and Mariel Greenlee. That segues into "In Freezing Winter Night," with the company creating a breathtaking vehicle for a Greenlee solo in which, with her colleagues' unstinting support, her feet never touch the ground. The well-designed tension of this episode never had a hint of shakiness or strain Thursday night. This was crucial for representing the one place in "Ceremony of Carols" in which heaven and earth, including the contrast between the infant Jesus' humble condition and the promise of his kingship, is juxtaposed. We are reminded that the justification for such extreme inequality of circumstance is not of this world, despite what today's political climate seems to recommend.

The work ascends from this mystery into the pure praise of "Deo Gracias," with the company in full celebration, putting a seal on the exuberance first established by "Wolcum Yole." The conveyance of the gifts to the place where the givers had just been was one of those still moments, without a human being in sight, that paradoxically hold up what dance at its best has to offer.

Emily Dyson put detailed expressiveness into a Norwegian song.
After intermission came "World of Christmas Kaleidoscope," a series of short pieces assembled over the span of 1994 to this year by Hochoy, with the superb team of Laura E. Glover (lighting) and Sparks (costumes) allowing the troupe to live up to its name in the heartiest international way. Barry Doss designed the whimsical costume for Greenlee in a solo as a street-wise Sugar Plum Fairy, with such fey touches as a glitter-covered ball cap worn backwards and, on her back, gauzy fairy wings.

Hochoy distributes eminence adroitly among his dancers, but it's such a pleasure to see Greenlee move into a position of dazzling virtuosity and charm of the sort once represented by Liberty Harris. Capable of statuesque charisma, tragic resonance, pizzazz, and saucy humor, both dancers have created many indelible DK memories over a span of three decades. What a tradition!

Tragic resonance got a rest in this show, and after her solo, Greenlee was mostly engaged in displaying signs indicating the national settings of "World of Christmas Kaleidoscope"'s component dances, though she joined in company numbers, including the blissful finale,  "Silent Night," preceded by a raucous Hawaiian neighbor, "Mele Kalikimaka."

The audience gets to appreciate the rest of the troupe in such solos as Stuart Coleman's, to Elvis' idiosyncratic version of "White Christmas," and Emily Dyson's in a buoyant dance to a Norwegian song, "The Bells Are Ringing."  There was a proper touch of effort and struggle in a Spanish song depicting Mary and Joseph's search for lodging in Bethlehem, danced in complementary light and shadow by Negron and June.

Company triumphs included the droll, gaily costumed, reindeeresque "Here Comes Santa Claus" (the Elvis version again), the evocations of the black church in "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," and, on a smaller scale yet sublimely peppy, a version of "O Holy Night" from Benin (danced by Coleman, Negron, and Paige Robinson) and the reggae-flecked Jamaican declaration, "All I Want for Christmas," featuring Brandon Comer, Aleksa Lukasiewicz, Manuel Valdes, and Marie Kuhns in a cumulative portrayal of spontaneous, mutually supportive energy.

It was the sort of piece you wish could go on forever, but its actual length was surely just about right. And "just about right" is a holiday truth, seasoned with understatement, that's applicable to the whole show.

[Photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]